If you buy a cup of coffee in the university’s cafeteria, you’ll actually pay a Pfand (deposit) on the mug. This brings your total to 1 euro, which includes the 25 cent Pfand. If you use your own mug, you won’t pay the Pfand and, as it turns out, it’s actually even cheaper overall (at just 60 cents).
But let’s say you’re not a super-prepared German who thinks multiple steps ahead and carries a mug around with you all the time in case you need a caffeine hit. Then you’ll have to spring for the cafeteria mug, and you’ll have to figure out how to get your Pfand back. The cafeteria cashiers can be nice, but there’s no time to stop and ask them silly questions in broken German when you’re in a queue (I had someone shove in front of me and pay ahead while I was dutifully counting out my coins the other day). So, more of the lurking and figuring things out on my own.
In the main hall of the Uni, outside of the cafeteria and not even particularly close to it, are the machines for depositing bottles and cafeteria mugs. I didn’t even brave my first coffee purchase until I had already seen someone returning their mug. Once I saw that, I knew I could handle the whole transaction. Or so I thought.
Inside a niche in the machine, there is a little mug-shaped cavity. I lined the handle up with the handle-space, settled the mug into the grooves, and let my hand hover, waiting for something to happen. Word to the wise: don’t do that. After a second, a door snaps shut over the niche. And it’s not all forgiving like an American automatic-sensor garage door, the kind that goes down slowly and then stops if it detects animals or children or other less-than-intelligent-and-possibly-helpless creatures underneath. It is fast, efficient, undiscriminating and very German.
Luckily, no one was impatiently queuing behind me and I don’t think anyone heard me yelp. I pressed the flashing green button to get my coupon, hand throbbing. The bruise on my wrist had faded weeks later, by the time I actually ventured back to the cafeteria to use my coupon towards another coffee. However, the German lesson learned sticks quite clearly: just get out of the way, or you could get hurt. And if you do, at least you have all the health care you could ever want.